Boston, COVID-19 and Resilience

Today while on my morning car ride with Keyan, a song came on the radio that was popular during the time of my father’s passing, in essence it is a song that I associate with that time. Tears started to stream down my face and with that a flood of memories. I didn’t hold back, instead I allowed myself to miss him. Before I knew it I was back to the last days we spent together. One of the most beautiful gifts my father ever gave me, just days before his passing, he asked “is there anything you want to talk about?”. He meant it as an opportunity for us to have a discussion that would provide us closure. I thought it was very brave on his part seeing that there were many wounds unhealed. Him and I had a tumultuous relationship. I had lots to say but nothing to say at all. I didn’t want any negativity surrounding his last days, it was important to me that he slip into his next life with only love. No burdens left to carry. I was totally caught off guard by his question. The question was too big but I didn’t want to avoid it and make him feel bad, especially after having the courage to ask. So I started to talk about the Boston marathon and my anxiety about going back but the excitement of having the opportunity to finish what I started.

This discussion between my father and I was 3 weeks out from the 2014 Boston marathon. I was invited back since I didn’t get to cross the finish line in 2013. I was merely 200 meters away from crossing the most iconic marathon finish line when the bombs went off. That instant would be life changing for so many. For me the Boston marathon became a symbol of my resilience, a gift that my parents had bestowed onto me. Growing up things weren’t easy, we learned quickly, that when you get knocked down you’ve got to work your way back up. I would attribute this to my scrappy father. The story I want to share with you is the story of a father, mother and daughter.

So here we are, my father and I sitting in the living room and he hits me with this loaded question. A few hours prior we were just in the doctor’s office (my mom, dad, sister and myself) and my dad says, plain out “hey doc how much time do I have left?” The answer like a sucker punch to the gut, for all of us. “Tom, I don’t usually talk about this to my patients. Since you have asked this question since day one and I have always answered. I will be honest with you - you have a few weeks.” My dad, paused with his head looking down he slowly looked up and stared right into my eyes and said “I guess I won’t be going to Boston.” Knowing that he wouldn’t be there physically - I knew I would carry him in my heart, so my response to him was “you will be there with me dad” then my mouth stopped moving and the sentence continued, in my head “you won’t be here with us physically but I will carry you in my heart”.

You might be wondering at this point why is she sharing something so intimate? I encourage you to continue reading because my attempt is to show anyone who is struggling, right now, that even in your darkest moments you must believe “this too shall pass”. As human beings there will always be difficult times but we have to dig deep to find the strength to carry on, even after loss. Right now we have all lost something; freedom, jobs, health, money or worst of all, a loved one. It is okay to grieve the loss of life as we knew it. In fact, I encourage you to grieve, feel all the feels. No one has any expectations of you. It is imperative that you give yourself space to feel whatever you are feeling on any give day, hour or minute. These are extraordinary times, that will teach us great lessons and we must be open to receive them.

Back in the doctor’s office my dad is wearing a shirt of the brightest orange. You see, my dad’s favorite color is orange. I had special t-shirts made for my family and friends coming to cheer me on in Boston, the previous year I had them wear an awful bright lime-green. I wanted to ensure I would see them at their one designated spot, around the 25 kilometer marker. It worked because I saw them. Ironically, I not only spotted them but I stopped to see them. I needed their help. I was wearing a tank top, with a built in bra, which was restricting my breathing, so I had to take it off and then pin my BIB to the front of my sports bra. In that chaotic moment I was awash with gratitude that they were there for me. As a show of my appreciation I would kiss all 13 of them. That stop was quick, only 1 minute and 20 seconds. What a team! This was proving to be the hardest marathon I had ever run so I was happy to just catch my breath in that moment.

I don’t know why my mother laid out an orange t-shirt for my dad to wear to the doctor’s that day but it meant so much to me. Sitting there, wearing a bright orange t-shirt and being told that he only had a few weeks left to live and in that moment he talks about Boston. He is acknowledging all the hard work I put in. He knew how much it all meant. Flash back to my first marathon, coming into the Olympic stadium, in Montreal, at the finish it is my dad who brings me to tears. Someone was recording my entrance into the stadium and in the audio we hear a conversation between my father-in-law, Kamal and my father. Kamal says, “this is the fastest I have ever seen someone run a marathon” and my father proudly says, “she is the only one I know to ever have run a marathon”. When I make into my father’s arms he begins to cry and buries his face into my neck. My tough guy father, embarrassed by the tears but so proud, all at the same time, he won’t let go and together we cry. Prior to the Boston marathon my father had been to the finish line to all of my marathons except one. There was one marathon, in the Capital city of Ottawa, when I didn’t want anyone but Kunal to be present. I wanted to focus hard in hopes of qualifying for Boston. I missed qualifying by 1 minute and 20 seconds but it would be my best marathon ever. On that day I was in the flow the whole time and experienced the elusive runner’s high.

Often times we are too busy moving onto the next. It is a bad habit of mine. We need to take the time to celebrate and to reflect on all of our accomplishments. As I write this piece, it is the first time the 124-year history of the Boston marathon, that no athletes will line up. On this day April 20th, 2020 the streets of Hopkinton are bare, with no runners, organizers, police, volunteers or spectators. It is a sad day for the marathon community and the cities that the Boston marathon run through. There will be people who can connect with this sense of loss but others will be left thinking, it’s only a sporting event and there will be others. At times like these even if you don’t connect to someone else’s grief, disappointment or otherwise, simply be kind. Allow everyone access to their feelings. I had gotten to visit Boston 3 years in a row, both as a runner and a spectator. It is truth, the Boston marathon is the holy grail of marathons. Every little moment experienced there is pure magic.

Facebook has been a good tool when it comes to compiling a story from the past with it’s “memories” reminder tool. Looking back at this time of year, my memories are filled with words of solace, encouragement and gratitude. Looking back there are all kinds of messages from the Boston marathon. In 2013, people frantically sending me messages praying for my safety and that of my entourage. Then in 2014, words of encouragement to help get me to the finish line. I can’t hide the fact that I suffered from PTSD and was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to cross the finish line in 2014. I had also lost my dad 19 days prior to the race. I had to find the courage to get to the start line with both the grief of losing my dad and the memory of the bombs. I spent months working through my PTSD with my therapist. I expressed my fears of not crossing the finish line and disappointing those who made the journey for me. Her response to my fear resides in my head to this day. She said “Audrey, merely going back to Boston you have already won”. In saying that she let me off the hook, knowing that it was a step by step process. Going to the expo was a very stressful event and I am grateful that Kunal was there to walk me through the process, because I was terrified. I told myself if I ran only 10km of the race that would be okay, then half-marathon or 30 kilometers. I needed to know there was always an out if it got too intense. I actually ran a good race until I hit the 30 kilometer marker and then the negative self talk kicked in. I allowed myself to walk too often for too long. When I had made it to the 40 kilometer marker I knew I was going to finish this marathon. It was the hardest part of the race with spectators packed in like sardines screaming at the runners. The cheers were so loud that the sound vibrated off the buildings and coursed through my body. In order, to finish I had to dig deep. I wasn’t physically tired because my pace was conservative and dotted with plenty of walk breaks, I was suffering psychologically. Albeit, turning left onto Boylston is one of the most incredible left turns a runner can take my heart beat so fast I feared having a heart attack. I stopped my thoughts and said nope – I won’t have a heart attack I didn’t run fast enough for that. Take a deep breath and enjoy this moment. With that single though it was as though the finish line came toward me and not me to it.

Crossing that finish line was amazing. The gratitude that poured out from the runners to the volunteers and vice versa, was incredible. There was so much love, joy and pride on that day. The 2014 Boston Marathon is said to be the most epic according to race organizer, Dave McGillivray. I celebrated that moment with strangers and it felt so good. I couldn’t believe I had just run 42.2 kilometers with the weight of losing my dad, the presence of my mother (newly widowed) and the vision of the bombs at the finish. The spectators and volunteers were the heroes of the day. Finally, I made my way to the sea of orange t-shirts, this time minus my dad. I was overcome with emotion to see my mother, in her newfound grief, there to support my crazy dream of running a marathon in Boston. In that moment she was the only person I cared about. I was in awe of her strength and resilience. I guess I do take after Shirl. I let my mother know that my father carried me through to the finish. That he will always be part of us and I had proof. A minute later my sister came to join us and we let the tears flow. It was a bitter-sweet moment. The three of us were in the doctor’s office to hear my dad had merely a few weeks left to live and here we were celebrating life. I could feel my dad’s pride!!! We all left Boston scared in 2013 but together we came back, in the face of fear and loss. It is a time in my life I will never forget. I am forever grateful to those who took of their time, money, energy and love to supporting one of my dreams: my mister, daughter, mother, father (2013), Nancy, Dawn, Mitali, Elizabeth, Stephanie, Andrew, Chriss & Nate (2013), MC & Eric (2014).

This is my unique love story with the Boston marathon. I continue to hold this marathon to the highest esteem and acknowledge the hard work it takes all athletes to get there. The Boston marathon is a symbol of my resilience. Resilience is key to getting through life’s hard times. We are all faced with hard times right now. There will be days when we feel like the athlete at the starting line, rested and ready. Other days we will feel as though we have hit the wall, feeling totally depleted. The finish line to the Corona virus seems far away – it always does when running a marathon and this is definitely a marathon. I know one thing for sure, when you cross the finish line to a marathon it changes you.

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© 2018 Audrey Burt